I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Decriminalize drugs at the federal level and let the States experiment

My previous post was a review of The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I found the book to be extremely thought provoking, but rather than muddle a book review with my own takeaway, I am writing a separate post.  Alexander’s thesis is that the present War on Drugs—the set of laws, sentencing guidelines, police practices, and funding structures—are effectively a new Jim Crow system, that operate to exclude African Americans (especially African American men) from society, condemning many to a life of poverty.

The picture the book portrays of the effect of the drug war is bleak. I am less convinced personally of the racial analysis, because I don’t see that Alexander has controlled carefully for poverty as a factor. Nevertheless, the racial disparities in poverty are indisputable, and the drug enforcement situation is what it is. I can say without reservation that, if a system were desired that would systematically disrupt families and consign entire generations to poverty, the current War on Drugs would fit the bill admirably.

When crack became widespread in the 1980s under Reagan, the move was for harsher penalties: lower thresholds for felonies, longer prison terms for offenders. This continued under Clinton in the 1990s. This has resulted in lengthy prison sentences for many African American men. In some cities, Alexander notes, a majority of African American males have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.

Now speaking personally, when I first heard complaints that African Americans were disproportionately incarcerated, my thought was, “What’s the proposal? To make fewer things illegal?” I asked the question (to myself) ironically, but I now think that it’s a proposal worth considering. Here’s my logic:

Why do we want to eliminate drugs from our society? Because they mess up people’s lives: they cause crime, break up families,  keep people from being productive members of society.

What has been the result of the War on Drugs on impoverished communities? Mass incarceration, which: causes crime, breaks up families, and keeps people from being productive members of society.

There is a point at which we must evaluate whether the solution we have been pursuing is not itself producing the very harms we are trying to avoid. What if drugs were legal? How much worse can things get that the results we’re currently getting? I submit that the answer to that question is not obvious.

Or, what if we addressed the drug problem a different way? With economic investment? With education? With jobs programs? Pie in the sky? I honestly don’t know—and nobody does, because we haven’t tried.

Here is a key quote from Alexander:

No one should ever attempt to minimize the harm caused by crack cocaine and the related violence. As David Kennedy correctly observes, “[c]rack blew through America’s poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” leaving behind unspeakable devastation and suffering. As a nation, though, we had a choice about how to respond. Some countries faced with rising drug crime or seemingly intractable rates of drug abuse and drug addiction chose the path of drug treatment, prevention, and education or economic investment in crime-ridden communities.

But here’s the rub: at the federal level, it’s going to be difficult to implement change. That’s because corn farmers in Nebraska and ranchers in Wyoming have just as much say (in fact, proportionately a greater say) than people in urban areas whose lives are affected by the drug war. If I have zero emotional investment in a situation, how much intelligent thought am I going to put into it? (Would you ask me what to do about the drought in California? Would you consult with me about building a new train line out east? No, of course not: I know nothing about those situations, nor do I care enough to even think carefully about them, much less do the research.)

Moreover, how would we ever find out what works? At the federal level we would need decades just to try various alternatives.

(Moreover, as Alexander notes, federal drug enforcement grants create incentives for the police to make drug arrests, which creates perverse financial incentives to lock people up. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to get rid of that system.)

So my proposal is simple: get the federal government out of the drug enforcement business, and let the states experiment.

So on January 1, all federal drug laws disappear. You can bet that by December 31, fifty states will have drug laws in place that match the old federal regulations pretty closely.

But then, the states can begin to experiment. Theoretically libertarians could lead the charge, but realistically it’s going to be a deep blue state in the Northeast. Vermont legalizes all drugs, and then… ?

Maybe it tanks, and we lose Vermont. Maybe it works in Vermont but then doesn’t work in New Jersey. States are different. The point is, states are more nimble than the federal government, and state legislators are going to be held more closely accountable than federal ones.

(My personal prediction: we’ll find out that a certain number of people will use addictive drugs and destroy their lives, just like some people use alcohol to destroy their lives. On the whole, I would predict that drugs alone will destroy fewer lives than drugs and the War on Drugs put together.)

Of course Colorado is sort of trying this out, having legalized marijuana. (Somehow the federal government is letting them do that. I’m not sure the full story.) So far, Colorado seems to be doing all right—but it’s still early enough that I’m glad we’re just trying it out in one state at first.


The New Jim Crow

I’ve just finished The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which is a well written and thought provoking book. Alexander deals primarily with the War on Drugs and its effects on individual African Americans, African American communities, and American society more generally.

This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.

Before getting into the specifics of The New Jim Crow,  I’ll note that I first came to the book through the writings of Ta-Nahesi Coates in The Atlantic.  I value Coates’ rich and emotive prose, but I am always at a loss to understand the logic of what he is saying: I am presented with a tragic story and a proposal for change, but nothing that links the two. I came to The New Jim Crow hoping to learn some new things, and understand the controversy surrounding African Americans and the justice system. I was not disappointed. Alexander writes both powerfully and clearly. Her arguments are clearly stated, and her factual claims are footnoted. (She is a law professor, so this is not surprising.) The book would be worth reading as an example of good persuasive writing. Moreover, it is clear that Alexander is accustomed to dialog. She acknowledges counter-arguments and addresses them honestly; she has a sense of how people think who think differently from her. (One does not get this sense from Coates.) Some of this may have developed in the home: in the acknowledgements, after thanking her husband for his support she comments that “[a]s a federal prosecutor, he does not share my views about the criminal justice system….” One can only imagine the dinner table conversation. But all of this is to say: if you’re looking for clear and compelling reflections on the effects of the justice system on African Americans, this is the book for you.

Alexander focuses on the effect of the War on Drugs on the black community. She identifies a historical progress of the oppression or exploitation of African Americans, beginning with slavery, then continuing in modified form in the Jim Crow system, and then reviving in the present day (as an alleged reaction to the victory of the Civil Rights movement) in the War on Drugs. The parallels between the suffering of African Americans today and the suffering of African Americans in history are not subtle:

More black men are imprisoned today than at any other moment in our nation’s history. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

More African American adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.

In my opinion, the book is at its best when it traces the disparate effect of drug laws on African Americans, at every stage of the system. I have not quoted extensively from this part of the book, but it was the part I think I gained the most from.

  • African Americas are disproportionately stopped by police, on all manner of pretexts. (This, by the way, is apparently what causes the disproportionate killing of black men by police.)
  • Federal funding creates powerful financial incentives for local police departments to prosecute drug crime. This feeds the problem above.
  • Prosecutors wield awesome power in their ability to pressure people accused of crimes into plea bargains. To me, this is the most glaring injustice in the entire court system. As Alexander carefully documents, there is essentially no oversight of this. (This deserves far more than one bullet point.)
  • Federal mandatory sentencing guidelines require judges to imprison people for lengthy periods.
  • (Around this section, there is also a nice discussion of various Supreme Court cases that bear on the issues.)

The crucial fact is the whites and blacks commit drug offenses at similar rates. There are differences, but they are not proportionate to the differences in outcomes. We do have a system where, as the result of various policies and the ways they are implemented, the justice system prosecutes the drug offenses of African Americans far more strenuously than it does the drug offences of white Americans.

In another chapter, Alexander deals with the social consequences of being a felon. This is perhaps not new information to most of us (at least those who have read Les Mis), but it’s well worth the review that Alexander gives us. The net effect of the system is that a large fraction of young African American men are funneled into a system that puts them at a social and economic disadvantage for the rest of their lives. I found the following metaphor illuminating:

The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape. What is particularly important to keep in mind is that any given wire of the cage may or may not be specifically developed for the purpose of trapping the bird, yet it still operates (together with the other wires) to restrict its freedom. By the same token, not every aspect of a racial caste system needs to be developed for the specific purpose of controlling black people in order for it to operate (together with other laws, institutions, and practices) to trap them at the bottom of a racial hierarchy. In the system of mass incarceration, a wide variety of laws, institutions, and practices—ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination—trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage.

I hope that everything I have written to this point would encourage a reader to read The New Jim Crow and to think about it seriously. That is my intent, at least. I do have some critical comments as well, however.

In the first passage I quoted, Alexander says that “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow”. Much rests on the word “metaphorically”. In my opinion, Alexander vacillates between claiming that mass incarceration relies on negative stereotypes of African Americans perpetuated by “elites” and “the media”, or that it is an unfortunate consequence of actions taken by people who are not necessarily of ill will.  Slavery and Jim Crow had a clear racial justification. The War on Drugs, by contrast, is justified in race-neutral terms. Alexander to eager to play up the extent to which the War on Drugs was motivated by fear about drug crimes committed by African Americans.

When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminals—at least not the way they would have cared if the criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

This passage implies that the laws were created a society that was anxious about African American drug use, but more forgiving of white drug use. I question whether this is the case, but in any event, it seems important to Alexander that negative racial attitudes form the basis for the War on Drugs.  Elsewhere, Alexander is content to attribute the harm to lack of concern, rather than actual racial animus (or, in the passage below, even racial prejudice).

Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow will fall on deaf ears and alienate potential allies if advocates fail to make clear that the claim is not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term. Race plays a major role—indeed, a defining role—in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility—a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.

The notion that racial caste systems are necessarily predicated on a desire to harm other racial groups, and that racial hostility is the essence of racism, is fundamentally misguided. Even slavery does not conform to this limited understanding of racism and racial caste. Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich, and black slavery was the most efficient means to that end. By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed. Preoccupation with the role of racial hostility in earlier caste systems can blind us to the ways in which every caste system, including mass incarceration, has been supported by racial indifference—a lack of caring and compassion for people of other races.

I quote that in pointing out Alexander’s ambivalence toward the roles of actual racism in the system of mass incarceration, but the passage is worth considering in its own right. Morally, I believe that the analysis is spot on: we have a system that produces disparate outcomes between different racial groups. It’s not evidence of hostility, necessarily, but of indifference.

But then we’re back to imputations of intentional harm. Many Jim Crow laws were race-neutral at a surface level, but were clearly intended, as in the example below, to disenfranchise African Americans. The passage below is again well worth reading in its own right, but again I point to Alexander’s ambivalence: are present day legislators intentionally trying to imprison black people, and merely using drug laws as thinly veiled means to do so?

An example of a difference [between Jim Crow and mass incarceration] that is less significant than it may initially appear is the “fact” that Jim Crow was explicitly race-based, whereas mass incarceration is not. This statement initially appears self-evident, but it is partially mistaken. Although it is common to think of Jim Crow as an explicitly race-based system, in fact a number of the key policies were officially colorblind. As previously noted, poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfranchisement laws were all formally race-neutral practices that were employed in order to avoid the prohibition on race discrimination in voting contained in the Fifteenth Amendment. These laws operated to create an all-white electorate because they excluded African Americans from the franchise but were not generally applied to whites. Poll workers had the discretion to charge a poll tax or administer a literacy test, or not, and they exercised their discretion in a racially discriminatory manner. Laws that said nothing about race operated to discriminate because those charged with enforcement were granted tremendous discretion, and they exercised that discretion in a highly discriminatory manner.

I will also add that, for a book that is quite explicitly about race—the end of the book argues strongly against colorblindness and in favor of racial consciousness—I don’t believe that Alexander successfully disentangles the many factors in play. I’m thinking of poverty and urban ghettos. Poverty is unfortunately higher in the African American population. As Alexander observes, African American urban communities were hit hard by the departure of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s.  She—obviously—ties the economic plight to the crime problem (NB: below, violent crime):

Although African Americans do not engage in drug crime at significantly higher rates than whites, black men do have much higher rates of violent crime, and violent crime is concentrated in ghetto communities. Studies have shown that joblessness—not race or black culture—explains the high rates of violent crime in poor black communities. When researchers have controlled for joblessness, differences in violent crime rates between young black and white men disappear.


This, however, raises the question of whether the effective “target” of the War on Drugs is African Americans as a whole, impoverished African Americans, impoverished urban African Americans, or impoverished urban Americans as a whole. Alexander frequently refers to “people of color” and “black and brown” people (the latter presumably referring to Hispanic Americans). Obviously, African Americans and Hispanic Americans had different experiences in American history. Alexander doesn’t really reflect on the differences here, nor ask how or why, if the War on Drugs is somehow the historical successor to slavery and Jim Crow, Hispanic Americans somehow got swept up into that narrative.

A final critique is that, in a book filled with terrific insights, Alexander is sometimes incautious in her claims and/or presentation of the data. I’ll illustrate the unevenness with two paragraphs, one bad and one good. I’ll begin with the bad so that I can end on a high note.

Another clue that mass incarceration, as we know it, would not exist but for the race of the imagined enemy can be found in the history of drug-law enforcement in the United States. Yale historian David Musto and other scholars have documented a disturbing, though unsurprising pattern: punishment becomes more severe when drug use is associated with people of color but softens when it is associated with whites. The history of marijuana policy is a good example. In the early 1900s, marijuana was perceived—rightly or wrongly—as a drug used by blacks and Mexican Americans, leading to the Boggs Act of the 1950s, penalizing first-time possession of marijuana with a sentence of two to five years in prison. In the 1960s, though, when marijuana became associated with the white middle class and college kids, commissions were promptly created to study whether marijuana was really as harmful as once thought. By 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act differentiated marijuana from other narcotics and lowered federal penalties. The same drug that had been considered fearsome twenty years earlier, when associated with African Americans and Latinos, was refashioned as a relatively harmless drug when associated with whites.

I’m not sure what this sweeping overview of perceptions and drug use and federal regulation is intended to achieve. (The original is footnoted.) Alexander makes a very strong claim here, and is not at all careful in demonstrating causal links between drug policy and drug perception. This cartoonish approach to history doesn’t help her case.

On the other hand, here is an excellent paragraph discussing the disparity between the government’s response to crack and its response to drunk driving.

At the close of the decade [the 1980s], drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year. By contrast, during the same time period, there were no prevalence statistics at all on crack, much less crack-related deaths. In fact, the number of deaths related to all illegal drugs combined was tiny compared to the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers. The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually—less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year. In response to growing concern—fueled by advocacy groups such as MADD and by the media coverage of drunk-driving fatalities—most states adopted tougher laws to punish drunk driving. Numerous states now have some type of mandatory sentencing for this offense—typically two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense. Possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine, on the other hand, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison.

The criticisms above are not intended to detract from a very good book, one which draws together a considerable amount of research, and presents a case that is (for the most part) carefully reasoned and presented. I’m very glad to have read this book, and I hope it continues to influence public policy debates.



War and Peace

It’s a long one, no question. I choose that opening sentence advisedly, knowing that I’m not in a position to say anything about this book that is much more intelligent than that. War and Peace had been on my reading list for some time, but I was finally nudged into reading it when I picked up a contemporary translation as a paperback on a giveaway table (tr. Anthony Briggs). I’d previously read Anna Karenina, so I knew to expect well developed characters and a strong moral emphasis. I was not disappointed. Tolstoy writes real characters, who are buffeted by circumstances, develop internally, make resolutions, fail in their resolutions, and whose courses are redirected according to the vicissitudes of life. I don’t know another writer who does this as well; the comparisons that come to mind are Dostoevsky, who writes archetypes, and any of the ‘clever’ modern writers who manage the readers’ perceptions of characters only by withholding information about them.

Structurally, the striking thing about War and Peace is its scope. It is an enormous work in the sense of time, space, number of characters, and page count, yes, but I am thinking of the characters, on the one hand, and on the historical focus on the other.

Characters. The focus is on Russian nobles, but Tolstoy reaches as far down as peasants and common soldiers, and as high up as Napoleon and the Russian general Kutuzov. Each is driven by his or her own utterly individual concerns; nearly every character is a moral center. At the moment, the only morally dimensionless characters I can call to mind are Karatayev, who is unalloyed goodness, and Dolokhov, who is unalloyed evil.

History. Tolstoy is in concerned with history, and a good portion of War and Peace consists of his reflections on the wars of the period, and they ways people have written about them. What moves history? What is the interrelation between free will and historical necessity? What counts as an explanation in history? In various ways, Tolstoy shows how the answers that had been given to these questions are inadequate. Fairly early on, he draws an analogy between historical interactions and infintestimal calculus. He says that history can only be understood as the summation of individual wills, integrated over time continuously. This leads him to some very interesting reflections, some of which I quote below. But it also provides the point of contact between individual experience and events of ‘historical’ magnitude, which I consider to be the real achievement of the book.

When he takes a broader perspective, Tolstoy is wont to describe events as either inevitable or senseless: he sees the failure to defend Smolensk and Moscow as the result of mere bureaucratic dithering. At various points in the narrative, Tolstoy argues that leaders have been credited with decisiveness and leadership after the fact, whereas in fact they were merely pursuing the inevitable course of action, given their circumstances and the facts they had at hand. This occasions not a few grim reflections on the meaninglessness and wastefulness of war—when Rostov visits Denisov in the field hospital, for instance. But the personal narratives take personal initiative and morality seriously. Andrey strives mightily in all that he does, but the course of his life is still determined almost entirely by events external to his control. Pierre is barely agentive, and his life too is determined by events external to his control. (Borodino is the climax, of course: Andrey waiting with his men for orders, Pierre wandering through the thick of the battle. “No, I’m just here.”) The achievement of the novel is that the one reality doesn’t negate the other. Individual lives really are tossed about by world events, and individuals really are free moral agents. The most tightly regimented prisoner in the most controling prison, is still morally free; or conversely, as Tolstoy remarks, the generals at the heads of the armies are no more free to act than the lowliest conscripts.


For the rest, I’ll cite a few passages in which Tolstoy comments on history or historiography. I’ve referred previously to his analogy between historical events and infintestimal calculus. After introducing this, he remarks that since all units of analysis are therefore arbitrary, it will be impossible to reach consensus on the analysis of historical events at the macro level.

Criticism can effortlessly ensure that every conclusion of history gets blown away like dust, leaving no trace behind, simply by selecting a greater or smaller discrete unit for analysis — and criticism has every right to do this, because the selection of historical units is always an arbitrary business.

This passage gave me a warm fuzzy feeling because I’d previously had a similar thought in the context of comparative studies of ancient near eastern cultures. It’s a bit depressing from the perspective of historiography, but there you go. (It all goes back to the induction problem; I’m reading Newman’s book on induction, in which I hope to find some answers to that, or at least some well-formulated problems.)

I’m delighted by the passage below, perhaps just by the metaphor. In critiquing ideas like ‘chance’ and ‘genius’ in historical writing, he comments that these are exactly the categories sheep might use to explain the visscitudes of sheepish existence:

To a flock of sheep the sheep who gets driven into a special pen by the shepherd every evening for a good feed, and becomes twice as fat as the rest, must seem like a genius. And the fact that every evening this sheep doesn’t come into the common fold, but goes into a special pen where there are lots of oats, and this same sheep fattens up nicely and then gets killed for mutton must look like a curious combination of genius and a series of unusual coincidences.

But all the sheep have to do is drop the assumption that everything that happens to them comes about solely for the furtherance of their sheepish interests; once they assume that the events occurring to them might have aims beyond their comprehension they will immediately perceive a unity and coherence in what is happening to the sheep that is being fattened up. Even if they will never quite understand why it is being fattened up, at least they will know that chance played no part in anything that happened to it, and they will have no need for concepts like chance or genius.

But again, the sheep are ridiculous only because they insist of finding interpretations for the events in their lives, in terms that are meaningful to them. If we accept frankly that nearly everything in the world that affects us personally, happens for reasons that are quite orthogonal to our personal interests or ideas, I think we’ll be a lot happier.

This is a delightful stick-in-the-eye to those of us who insist on the primacy of ideas as a force in world history. Perhaps that can be shown, but it can’t just be assumed, any more than we would assume that trends in handicrafts affect world events.

There clearly is a connection between all living things at any one time, and so it must be possible to establish some sort of connection between the intellectual activity of men and their historical movements, just as a connection can be established between the movements of humanity and commerce, handicrafts, horticulture, and anything else you care to name. But why intellectual activity should be singled out by cultural historians as the cause or the expression of an entire historical movement is not easy to understand. Historians could arrive at such a conclusion only with the following provisos: (1) that history is written by educated people who find it natural and agreeable to believe that the activity of their social group is a source of movement for the whole of humanity, just as this kind of belief would come naturally and agreeably to tradesmen, agriculturalists and soldiers (only their beliefs don’t get expressed because merchants and soldiers don’t write history), and (2) that spiritual activity, enlightenment, civilization, culture and ideas are all vague and indeterminate concepts, flags of convenience under which even more opaque phrases can be used very conveniently, thus accommodating any kind of theory.

And another fine passage, calling out facile historical explanations. How easy to accept ideas that are intellectually or emotionally satisfying, without regard to their truthfulness…

So far the study of history as part of the human spirit of inquiry has been like money in circulation, notes and coins. Biographies and national histories are like paper money. They can pass and circulate, doing their job without harming anyone and fulfilling a useful function, as long as no one questions the guarantee behind them. And as long as no one questions precisely how the will of heroes is supposed to direct events, historical works by Thiers and his ilk will retain a certain interest and educational value, not to mention the odd touch of poetry. But just as doubts about the validity of banknotes can arise, either when too many go into circulation because they are so easy to make, or because of a sudden rush to convert them into gold, in the same way doubts about the real value of this type of historical work will arise either when too many of them are written, or when some naïve person asks the simple question, ‘Precisely what force was it that made it possible for Napoleon to do that?’ — in other words, when someone wishes to change a working note for the pure gold of a valid concept.

Books I read in 1390

There’s a pleasing variety of non-fiction here. It doesn’t seem to have been a great year for fiction, though there are some good ones.

  • [redacted] — “Oooh… I wonder why it’s redacted?” But this was a painful book to get through, so a little damnatio memoriae may not be inappropriate.
  • The Language of God—Francis Collins; good book.
  • Wuthering Heights—Bleak and depressing. I didn’t care about any of the characters.
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes
  • Epitome of the Divine Institutes (Lactantius)—I was very glad I read the epitome instead of the full Institutes, because this guy gave no evidence of knowing anything about the Bible. A cautionary tale to future cultural apologists.
  • Indo-European Language and Culture—This was really excellent, the ‘missing manual’ for Indo-European studies.
  • Kidnapped—Stevenson! Wonderful adventure author.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People—Condoleeza Rice’s first autobiography. She likes Brahms’ piano sonatas; I’m ambivalent about him.
  • Pirate Latitudes—Published posthumously, so who knows what he would have done with it, but what a terrible book.
  • No Country for Old Men—My first Cormac McCarthy book; I’ve become a fan (and tried my hand at his style!).
  • The Critical Villager—Interesting development writing; good reflections on the aid process.
  • The Great Divorce—Lewis writes the perfect rebuttal to MacDonald’s universalism—strong, yet gentle. Moral formation is important. This is probably my favorite C.S. Lewis book.
  • Christian Behavior—Unfortunately I can’t remember this book; a google search suggests that the author was either Lewis or Bunyan; I think Lewis is more likely, but I can’t recall a thing about this.
  • The Little Book of Conflict Transformation
  • Jesus and the God of Israel—Bauckham. This was very good, and offers some interesting directions for understanding early christology.
  • Next
  • The Princess and the Goblin—George MacDonald at his best, profound and childlike. Probably also the most cohesive plot of any MacDonald book too.
  • The Art of Writing (Stevenson)—He sure knew how to write, but I don’t recall that he had any insights about how to write.
  • Operational Security Management in Violent Environments—Good, straightforward prose and hardheaded thinking. Bit of a depressing read, but good nonetheless.
  • Rob Roy—I remember waiting and waiting and waiting to meet Rob Roy. This was good, but the actual protagonist is someone entirely different.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—The plot was thin and the sex and violence were voyeuristic. Its popularity is no mystery.
  • His Last Bow
  • Basics of Biblical Greek
  • The Psychopath Test—This was a great read.
  • The Pioneer Woman—Don’t judge me; my wife had gotten it from the library and I needed a book.
  • The Iliad—The Pope translation. It reflects poorly upon me that I’ve enjoyed having read this book far more than I enjoyed the actual reading.
  • Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy—This was pretty thin gruel. I’d previously enjoyed the same author’s history of Byzantium, but this was too cursory. (I want to say Julian Norwich, but of course that’s not right)
  • The Princess and Curdie—I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Princess and The Goblin; this was much more grown up.
  • Basic Music Theory
  • The Trivium—Slightly more interesting than reading the classifieds.
  • The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Man with Two Left Feet
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave—If America was produced any more mature reflection of freedom, individualism, and human dignity, I have not found it.
  • War in Heaven—This is my favorite Williams book; I love the image of the archdeacon who is saturated with the liturgy.
  • The Valley of Fear
  • Basics of Biblical Greek Workbook
  • Many Dimensions—Perhaps my second-favorite Williams book.
  • The Great Gatsby—I can’t understand the appeal of this book. Want to read a choppy story about people throwing their lives away over trivia?
  • Introduction to Epistemology—This was very nice; very good explanations.
  • 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know—This was my foray into making my programming more professional. I forget what I took away from this book specifically, but my code has become far better in the last several years.
  • Sense and Sensibility—I can’t recall a specific critique, but I didn’t enjoy this. I don’t seem to have read a Jane Austen book since this one.
  • Never let me go—A single clever idea, spread too thinly over a novel.
  • Ben-Hur—My goodness, what a terrible book. What a terrible portrait of Christ at the end, anemic and effeminate.
  • Watch for the Light—An uneven collection of Advent devotional material, but it stirs the pot.
  • The Climax of the Covenant
  • Relevance Theory: A Guide to Successful Communication in Translation—So much of linguistics is quibbling over details and paring down the data until we can account for it. Relevant Theory allows us to analyze satisfying chunks of reality.
  • Introduction to Translation Studies
  • The Persian Literature, Volume 1
  • Semiotics for Beginners—A fun book available online. I’m still only vaguely aware what semiotics itself is good for, but the data are interesting.
  • The Persian Literature, Volume 2 (Gulistan)
  • No Higher Honor
  • Thousand and One Nights, Volume 1—I don’t plan to read the subsequent volumes, since this was mostly the same story told over and over again. But perhaps the stories are sorted by plot, and other volumes have different plotlines.
  • The Tacit Dimension

You know what would make this line move faster? If I stood a little closer to you

A Guest Post from The Person Who was Standing Behind Me at the New Delhi Airport Last Month

Hi, how are you? Waiting in line? It’s sure been a long one: snaking around the little barriers three or four times, and even spilling out beyond the designated area. I wonder what we could do to speed this process up? How about if I were standing right behind you?

Yes, I think this is making it go faster. Those airline people sure are taking their time. Looks like there’s some process to do with reservations, passports, and baggage. We should all do our part by standing as close together as we possibly can. That’ll speed this up.

So, you travel much? I guess you must have some international flying experience, inasmuch as you’re neither an Indian nor flying to a location in India. So I’m actually a little surprised that you’re not pressed in as close as possible to the person standing in front of you. How is it you don’t know this technique? Seriously, don’t you want that little head start when it’s your turn to approach the desk?

Airport check-ins are a tricky thing, and it’s clear that the airlines have some sort of responsibility for ensuring that they don’t fly people to places they won’t be allowed to enter. They must have to check the entry and exit visa in every passport. And there’s probably some kind of check with a terrorist database too. That all takes a certain amount of time, and I for certainly wouldn’t want to contribute to the delay by leaving so much as a centimeter between me and you. In fact, probably the easiest thing is if I keep my luggage cart pressed up against your calves. Bump. Isn’t that nice and snug?

Oh, did we all just move up a half-step? Let me get that luggage cart right up against the back of your calves again. Bump.

Were you taking another step forward or just shifting your weight because you’ve been standing in line for about an hour now? No problem, I’ll just get the luggage cart back in place. Bump.

Thanks, you’re being great about this. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve missed a flight because I wasn’t in actual physical contact with the person ahead of me in line.

In which the computer guesses my personality from my blog posts

A psychologist friend recently shared a story with me about calculating personality traits from social media, and using those results to influence election outcomes by allowing more targeted political advertising. It turns out that you can subject your psyche to this scrutiny for free online.  I was a little hesitant to volunteer my Facebook profile, but I didn’t see any harm in pasting in some of my blog posts to see what it came up with. (These were all written, of course, with no thought that they would be used as part of a personality test.)

I’ve posted the results of the Big 5 personality traits below, along with Myers-Briggs estimates, which were always INTJ or INTP (I have always thought I was an INTJ, but INTP isn’t a bad fit either).

My psychological gender was 95%-99% masculine, which made sense: not long ago I read an article that pointed out that female INTJs have difficulty being accepted because they think like (stereotypical) men. When I first read that, I suddenly realized the peculiar contradiction that I’ve never really struggled with my masculinity, even though I’m a poetry-loving non-athletic academic: in spite of not doing any stereotypically masculine things, I think like a (stereotypical) man.

In general, I’m impressed that it gives fairly consistent results—although this might not mean anything more than that I have a consistent writing style. In terms of personality, I am surprised to see consistent marks in the direction of “Liberal and Artistic”. The other dimensions are not particular surprising to me; some of them are right on the border of course.

Psalms (INTP)

The Idea of a University  (INTP)

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle  (INTJ)

  • Odd that an essay that was trying to get people to stop freaking out showed me as more strongly ‘competitive’ and ‘impulsive and spontaneous’.
  • But this is also where the J in INTJ showed through most clearly, which perhaps suggests decisiveness following the election result. (?)

The Moral Vision of the New Testament  (INTJ)

A People’s History of the United States  (INTP)

  • If writing a negative review of A People’s History gets me the highest scoring for ‘Liberal and Artistic’, I think they must be using the 17th-century definition of ‘liberal’.
  • More ‘Competititve’ here perhaps because I was writing a negative review?

The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time  (INTP)

  • This post was mostly about funny stuff and fun memories. Perhaps that’s why I came across as more ‘Impulsive and Spontaneous’ and more ‘Laid back and Relaxed’?
  • Apparently I should watch more fail videos!

Make economic immigration radically easier, and build a wall  (INTP)

And here are my results from a personality test they have on their web site based on my responses to 100 statements.

Now, if we can assume that the two means of personality evaluation are both valid, the interesting points are:

  • I am more open in my writing than I am willing to admit to on a personality inventory.
  • I am more conscientious in my writing than I admit on the inventory, but also more neurotic.

This test also labeled me as an ISTJ, however, which I think is pretty far off.

And this has been the week’s dose of navel-gazing and self-absorption.

Fake News & Unavoidable Narratives

I attended a security meeting a few days ago, run by an international NGO whose sole purpose is to monitor the security situation and share that information with other NGOs. This NGO collates all of this information—mostly based on what NGOs share with them—and sends a list of them out weekly in spreadsheet format. That is the core product. (There are biweekly and quarterly reports that try to track trends in incident numbers in various regions of the country, but it’s fairly basic data processing.)

This is to say, the weekly reports I get from this organization are “just the facts.” That doesn’t make them infallible: the standard epistemological caveats apply. But if somebody’s detonated an IED, then we get a report that somebody detonated an IED: with little or no speculation as to motives, or the identity of the perpetrators. The reports are, I imagine, as close as we can get to objective news reporting.

In the notes I typed up for myself after the security roundtable, I wrote, “It’s difficult to create a narrative based on a lot of discrete data points.” That reflected my observation that the security NGO truly struggled to place the facts that they had collected into any sort of narrative context. It wasn’t for want of trying, but just about all they are able to say were things like, “Incidents are up X% in this province from last year,” or “Incidents are down Y% from three months ago.” And, tedious as those sorts of observations can be, I admire their intellectual humility in choosing not to create a narrative out of the facts for which they did not have evidence.

On the other hand, the security reports are utterly unreadable. In fact, until recently I was just ignoring them, because the barrage of facts made no sense to me. That’s because they had no narrative.

Humans process facts primarily through narratives. Without a narrative, it’s very difficult to hold a large number of facts together.  I was able to place my spreadsheet-of-facts into a narrative context by getting the data into Google Earth, grouped by week. All of a sudden, my brain could work with the data: the events were distributed spatially and with time. With some furious clicking I could create little animations of how (badly) things were going, and where. Even if my simple data visualization lacked some crucial narrative elements—I still don’t know who the actors are, and I don’t have a clear sense of their goals, beyond seeing where they choose to operate—it provides enough narrative scaffolding for me to make sense of the data.

If I were going to invest in a news media company, I would not invest in one that sent around weekly spreadsheets of events. News is only comprehensible to us because the facts of the situation are presented in the context of a narrative. A more nefarious way to express the idea of the last sentence is to say that successful news must be placed into a narrative of the media company’s choosing. So in this sense, “media bias” is unavoidable, not just with respect to the selection of facts, but also with respect to the narrative context in which the facts are placed. (This is probably where confirmation bias comes from.) So, for instance, atrocities committed by military personnel from various countries can be presented either as isolated atrocities, or as part of a larger narrative an injustice. In the American media, Syria and Russia tend to get the latter treatment. America got the gentler treatment in the earlier Bush years and in the Obama years. Or, if you can remember the news from 2015, there was a tremendous spate of stories about gun violence and shootings—despite the fact that gun violence was decreasing at that time.

In all eras, stories from media outlets have reflected the narratives that those outlets wish to promulgate (for instance, during World War II). It seems to me that in the 1990s, the growth of cable news added a market element in: consumers could choose who they wanted to get their news from. And then of course in the last fifteen years or so, social media has encouraged the formation of echo chambers. Fake news flows inevitably out of this situation. Once the echo chamber has been formed, all that is needed to satisfy our itching ears is a tiny narrative to fit into the larger one. The factuality of the incident is less important than the narrative resonances that it evokes.

Make economic immigration radically easier, and build a wall

The national conversation around immigration in the United States is like a needle in the eye to anyone who has an interest in rational discourse. Nevertheless, I am taking a shot at it, and I’m putting some of my thoughts into words. Heaven help me.

The proposal has two parts. The first is to make immigration (or temporary residence) for economic reasons trivially easy: for instance, admitting anyone without a felony conviction, who had an offer of employment from an American company. The second is to take action to secure America’s borders: with a wall, or electronic surveillance, or lots of boots on the ground, or whatever.

Free migration—From the economic perspective

The economic situation is extremely straightforward. There are businesses in America that need labor. There are people in the world who are willing to do it at the wages offered. There is almost nothing more to say. I believe that the labor shortage is real. I do not know Americans who are trying to get jobs picking vegetables, or processing chicken. I do not believe that people who employ immigrants illegally would take the trouble to (1) work across cultural boundaries, and (2) break the law, if they had a pool of American workers willing to do the work for the same wages.

If there is work to be done and people who want to do it, the employers and the employees will find a way to do it; more on that below. If we’re going to try to disrupt that with the power of the state, we need to have some pretty compelling reasons to do so. I, frankly, cannot think of any reasons that are unique to economic migrants.

I wrote “that are unique to economic migrants” because the poor are always a politically problematic group. The challenge of economic immigration is that, aside from the case of highly skilled workers, more economic migrants means more poor people. America has not been very successful in having a conversation about taxation, income redistribution, and the social safety net. But until ability-to-earn-money starts being distributed around our society in some more equal way, we will have the poor with us. Our national inability to come to some sort of understanding with ourselves should not prevent us from having a sensible immigration policy. We should not hesitate to employ people, simply because they belong to a different class.

One possible objection to the above paragraph relates to taxation. We’re in a situation in America where half of the country pays no income tax. (Social security tax, Medicare tax, and sales taxes are of course paid by everyone.) In such a situation, our society has a clear interest in minimizing the proportion of the population who benefit from state services, but do not pay for them. That is to say, it’s not great to have too many people in America like me: people who have never paid income tax because they’ve never made enough money to do so. But once again, I diagnose this as a problem inherent to our current regime of taxation, not to immigration as such. If we low-income citizens are rightly judged to be freeloaders—and I would have to be pretty bold to say that I wasn’t, at least a little—then need to have that conversation, and change the law as necessary. It makes no sense to try to prevent the migration of poor people into this country, simply because we can’t come to consensus on a just way to treat the poor.

Free migration—From the moral perspective

It would be customary at this point for me, as an evangelical Christian, to quote some Bible verses about dealing justly with the poor and the alien. In the right circles, these verses are invoked only slightly less frequently than John 3:16 is at a football game. But I am writing about American policy, and as such I will mount my moral argument from Enlightenment principles. (Enlightenment principles are intellectual descendants of Christian moral teachings, so there will be overlap here.)

The general principle is that, all other things being equal, autonomous individuals should not be prohibited from entering into voluntary contracts. The application in this context is that if a person from another country wants to come to America to supply the demand for labor, we should not stop that person. If a person is willing to employ an immigrant to do a job, we should not stop that person.

Now the state appropriately proscribes certain transactions: prostitution, the drug trade, human trafficking, etc. To the extent that the state is permitted to interfere at all with the transactions of free individuals, that interference should be based on law; and in a liberal democracy, there should be a moral justification for the law. But clearly there is no moral argument for discriminating on the basis of nationality and citizenship. Indeed, if a United States business were to discriminate on the basis of nationality in employment, they would (justly) be subject to the penalties of the law. What then, is the moral difference between an Irishman born in Ireland and an Irishman born in the United States? (I use the social divisions of yesteryear to help keep the discussion abstract.) There is none. Discriminating on the basis of skin color is no less reprehensible than discriminating on the basis of passport color.

(The argument of the last paragraph implies that I do not believe that distinctions in citizenship can be brought to bear on moral judgments. This reflects my unease with statist politics in general. I do not have a coherent moral critique of moral states; my religious beliefs do not provide me with one. I offer my arguments here based on the assumption that a state’s law and practice can be more or less just, and that we’re better off in their being more just.)

Free migration—From the pragmatic perspective

The argument now moves from economics and morality to pragmatism. Although I have never driven much in wet or icy conditions, I still remember from driver’s ed what to do if your car starts to skid: turn in the direction of the skid. This is counterintuitive, because it means turning in the direction that you don’t want to go. But it’s crucial to regain traction, so we can exert influence on the situation.

Consider the analogy in relation to the present situation. With something like eleven million illegal immigrants, it is clear that America is operating with considerable autonomy from American laws. The country is skidding. If the government wishes to have any influence on the situation (which I think it should, for reasons I discuss below) then it is absolutely necessary to regain traction. Whatever distaste people might have for ‘amnesty’ and related terms, the fact is that the government has not enforced its own laws to this point. The only solution I can see is to adjust the law to reflect the reality on the ground, and then to gain control of the situation from there.

There is of course an entire moral argument for why laws need to be enforced. If there are laws on the books that are unenforced, it creates a very dangerous situation for people who are in violation of those laws. By neither legalizing nor deporting the eleven million illegal immigrants in our midst, we are leaving them outside of the protection of government. Police can threaten them with deportation; employers can abuse them, knowing that they have no legal recourse. I hope that such abuses are rare, but human nature is what it is; you don’t organize a society on the basis of an expectation of universal benevolence.

Transition to border enforcement—policy, not symbolism

I will now take up the issue of border enforcement: controlling who crosses the borders of the United States. Although I have argued above for a relatively open border, I believe it is equally important that the border be opened through the rule of law, and not neglect of the rule of law.

The first thing that observe is that building a wall is not the most welcoming thing for a country to do to its neighbors. The feeble maxim that “good fences make good neighbors” hardly counterbalances the symbolic power of the Berlin Wall, for instance. But the policy needs to be considered independently of non-substantive symbolic considerations. The security bubble around the President is not a shining illustration of democracy, for instance, but it’s necessary in the world we live in.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some people—perhaps most people who advocate building a wall, I don’t know—do so out of a genuine and misguided attempt to keep all immigrants out, rather than to ensure the rule of law. But the fact some wrongheaded people advocate enforcing the border has no bearing on whether it is in fact a good idea to secure the borders. To think otherwise is to commit a guilt-by-association fallacy. As I like to point out, Hitler was against smoking long before it was cool to be against smoking; it makes no sense to start smoking as a reaction against Nazism.

And lastly, I will observe that for the last ten or fifteen years, the message of half of the political spectrum has been, “They only want to build a wall because they hate immigrants.” Now, whether that is true or not—and it is not true in my case; I want more immigrants, if anything—we can hardly be surprised that, if a wall is built, our neighbors to the North and South will conclude that we built it because we hate them. This is one of those tragic results of the way that politics is conducted these days. We certainly need to show sensitivity. But again, this is not a factor that we can allow to arbitrate between various policy options.

Transition to border enforcement—being frank in what we’re pursuing

In this essay, I have made every effort to speak frankly: I advocate free economic migration, which should take place under the rule of law. I am trying to be explicit because my experience has been that often well-intentioned people will advocate for whatever policy seems nicer or kinder, to the detriment of a rigorous consideration of the issues. Thus I suspect that for some people, opposition to a border wall reflects their desire to be generous and welcoming people: to be on the side of America that is pro-immigration, and to be opposed to the anti-immigration side.

But I could wish that if people wish for there to be free economic migration, they would make that case directly, rather than latching on to issues that seem symbolically important. It’s unfortunate that they don’t because, as I’ve written above, I believe that the economic and moral cases for free economic migration are quite strong. As I write below, I believe that the moral case for border enforcement is quite strong. But if one can’t move beyond the idea of a border wall as a negative symbol, the moral case can probably not be appreciated.

Border enforcement—As a basic element of sovereignty

In the first place, it must be acknowledged that the idea of controlling borders is not some fiction dreamed up by anti-immigration activists as a way to express racist sentiment in a politically correct fashion. It’s one of the basic elements of state sovereignty. (There are various definitions, which you can research yourself, but you’ll see that control of movement across borders comes up again and again.)

It is easier to appreciate this if you think about traveling internationally by plane. Entering another country is a highly ordered process. It’s hardly as if they let you off on the tarmac and hope that you go through customs before leaving. It’s highly ordered and tightly controlled. If our land borders with the United States and Canada are loosely enforced, we can at least acknowledge that those two countries are the outliers among the nations of the world. We keep tight controls on the British, the Chinese, the Zambians, and the Chileans when they try to enter our country.

Border enforcement—From the moral perspective

All of my observations on the economic forces that drive migration—if they are true at all—are true irrespective of U.S. immigration policy. The United States will continue to exert a magnetic effect on the poor people of developing countries. In the current situation, substantial migration is accomplished through illegal means. This means that the government’s inability to control the situation on the ground is facilitating criminal activity.

Eliminating (or vastly reducing) illegal economic immigration will not of course eliminate drug trafficking or human trafficking. Border security remains important.

Now, it can be argued that controlling movement across borders is as unworkable as enforcing Prohibition was in the 1930s. But practically, the situations are not parallel. Defending a border is a much better defined task than controlling the possession of substance. It can be solved technologically. (Not that it’s at all parallel, or anything to aspire towards, but we’ve certainly had no problem controlling the border between North Korea and South Korea, for instance.)

By refusing to control the borders, we have made being “coyote” a profession. We are sponsoring human trafficking. In fact, we are baiting people into it, just as surely as the wet-foot/dry-foot policy baited thousands of Cubans into making a dangerous journey across the sea.

This is particularly where we need to consider whether the kind thing to do is indeed not to enforce the border. Hundreds of people die crossing the Sonoran Desert every year, on their way to America. Is the “kind” option really to facilitate that? Or it is better to provide a strong disincentive for illegal crossings, in addition to making economic immigration radically easier? This is why I feel that’s important to advocate for sensible policy positions (e.g., bringing U.S. law into alignment with reality), rather than for taking what seems to be the more generous side in one of the false dichotomies of the day.



It’s a sign of the quality of our political discourse, that as I finish this, I have to encourage myself to be contented at having expressed my thoughts, even if the current political climate precludes their being given a hearing by friends from one side or another.

The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time

This was the highlight of the internet for me in 2016.

Why? In the first place, because it’s funny to watch people fail. That’s why “fail videos” are a thing. And this is about a big a failure as you can get. But I think there is more to it that just that.

On July 4, 2016, the day before I saw this video, I was in a small town in the American Midwest celebrating Independence Day with my family. The main event for us was a small-time magician performing with his wife. We had a great time. He was great with kids; our kids got to participate; they got to see a dozen or so magic tricks. Needless to say, my brain was relatively unoccupied, and so I had a lot of opportunities to reflect upon the cognitive gymnastics that make a magic show possible. It’s a strange event at first glance, because we all know that the laws of physics are what they are, and that the most we can hope for is to be effectively tricked. The key is a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, which creates a kind of intermediate world where we can be entertained: believing and not believing at the same time.

At one point, with his wife in the box waiting to get cut in half, our magician apologized to the audience for having forgotten some important props, and and ran to his van to get them. Now, the size of the venue and the quality of the show to that point suggested to me that he had in fact forgotten his props. But later his wife popped out of the box wearing a different outfit, which made me wonder if it wasn’t some of kind of trick for buying time. I’m still not sure which is true, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

This applies all the more to danger. At one point, our magician did the trick where he chops a carrot in half with a small guillotine, and then puts a kid’s hand in the guillotine and… somehow it turns out okay. (Actually, when you put it like that, the importance of showmanship becomes clear: without showmanship, how could it be entertaining for nothing to happen?) Now, I could see the magician futzing with the various blades of the guillotine (which is of course the only way it can work), as he shouted about how dangerous the trick was. I also saw him mute his lapel mic and whisper to his young volunteer that there was no real danger, which was sweet.

This was my cognitive context when I saw the link to this video.

The video can still bring me to tears. But why is it funny? A few weeks ago, while attending an awards ceremony in a second language (which is only slightly more boring than attending an awards ceremony in one’s native language), I gave this some thought. Here is what I came up with.

I believe all of most humor involves a reversal of expectations. There’s a study that claims that the joke below is the funniest joke in the world.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

It’s funny, but I’m not sure it’s actually the funniest joke in the world; I think it was judged to be so because they took the trouble to ask people from around the world, and all or most of them found it to be funny. (You can think a bit about what would make a joke successful cross-culturally. It doesn’t rely on verbal humor, etc.)

Now, you could argue that the joke is funny because it’s funny to laugh at the surviving hunter, who misunderstands the instruction. But I think the joke is actually on the hearer of the joke, who doesn’t realize that there’s more than one interpretation to “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” until the joke ends. Many jokes work this way, like the one-liner Groucho Marx used in a movie to address his troops, “Some of you might not make it, and the rest of you definitely won’t.” The default assumption is that survival is the norm, though of course this is not logically necessary. And one more example I saw on Facebook recently:

An old man was getting close to death. He asked his young wife, “When I die, will you re-marry?” “Yes,” she said. “Will you cook him mantu?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Why not?” he asked. “Because he doesn’t like mantu.”

The punchline of the joke causes a reversal of expectations: that the wife is considering not just the potential of remarriage, but actually has the replacement in mind already.

(Reversal of expectations is also the key element of dramatic irony, so this has ramifications into greater topics than humor.)

So then, as a first step to explaining the humor of the magician’s video, I’ll point out that enjoying a magic show that shows an ostensibly dangerous situation involves these three real-world beliefs or commitments:

  1. A magic show is a safe place.
  2. The magician is pretending that there is danger.
  3. I decide to consciously suspend my belief in (1), and play along with (2), in order to have fun.

These all follow from my experience of a silly small-town magic show.

When the idiot magician impales the host’s hand on a nail, all of the assumptions are reversed instantaneously. We learn that in fact:

  1. The magic show is a dangerous place.
  2. The magician was oblivious to the very real danger of the situation.
  3. My original make-believe was not make-believe at all; my make-believe came true.

The sudden reversal of expectation is, I believe, what makes it a funny video. There’s further nuance to explore. For instance, the magician is “pretending” that there is a dangerous situation, while simultaneously assuring the host that he is in control. In fact, the magician’s assurances show only a lack of self-awareness, and he’s not in control at all. It’s also worth considering what exactly counts as a reversal of expectation; it’s probably more complex than mere logical negation. But this nails it down to my own satisfaction, more or less.

Books I read in 1389

For the beginning part of this year I was still reading books that I had started and not completed before I adopted the discipline of finishing every book I started. I believe that Homilies on the Gospel of John is the last book I had started but not finished.

  • The Bookseller of Kabul—this book is worth reading as an illustration of how not to engage with foreign cultures. It is ridiculously bad; the author doesn’t even make an effort to see things from Afghans’ point of view. Quite typical of the period.
  • Conceptual Foundations of Teaching Reading—I remember this was really excellent and data-driven. The best part of the book comes at the end, where the author reproduces the results of national standardized reading tests that show that—believe it or not!—none of the changes in reading pedagogy has really moved the needle on reading ability. Frankly,  I think that this is because “literacy” is described in such expansive terms about processing, comparing, and synthesizing information, that it’s basically become redundant with terms such as “intelligence” or “cultivation.”
  • Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach—This was valuable; and the first edition was much better than the second.
  • Developing Adult Literacy
  • Homilies on the Gospel of John—This was Chrysostom, but (perhaps because I was sort of anxious to read through it and get on to something else) I don’t recall taking much away from it.
  • Hexameron—The science and even the understanding of the natural world is… dated. But the exultation with which Basil glories in the wonders of Creation can’t be gainsaid.
  • Second Treatise of Government—This fell apart for me when Locke remarked, almost as an aside, that if someone stole his property, then he (Locke) would be justified in killing that man, but not in taking his property back. It’s like one of those moments in math when you come up with 2 = 0, and you know that something has gone wrong somewhere, even if you don’t know exactly where.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales
  • My Grandfather’s Son—What struck me about Clarence Thomas’s autobiography was that race forms so much of his personal experience, however much he tries to keep race out of his jurisprudence.
  • Bright Against the Storm—This book and the one following were written by my friend Ari Heinze. I enjoyed them, and I don’t think they’ve be received as they might be.
  • Ashes of Our Joy
  • The Turkish Jester—I enjoy a good Mullah Nasruddeen story, but I don’t think I understood a single one of these jokes.
  • Dracula—This is such a terrible book. It was so painful to read I was angry most of the time that I was reading. What kind of person writes out an entire chapter in German-accented dialect, because zat’s ze vay ze character speaks? It was so difficult to get through this book I can’t even say.
  • Stones to Schools—Of course this now needs to be read in concert with Jon Krakauer’s book.
  • A world without poverty—There’s probably a honeymoon period after winning a Nobel Prize where it seems like you can really make a diffference.  I think Muhammad Yunus was going through some of that here. A great man, though.
  • Working together for literacy
  • Handbook of the International Phonetic Association
  • The New Testament and the People of God
  • Persian Grammar
  • A Man For All Seasons—Of course I heard Paul Scofield’s voice as I read the play.
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  • Jane Eyre
  • First on the Moon—This was a lot of fun. I was getting into space stuff again with the kids.
  • Henry VIII
  • A Preface to Paradise Lost—Helpful on many levels.
  • A Student’s Guide to Literature
  • The Canterbury Tales—In the original. I need to write some blog posts about these.
  • The Well-Trained Mind
  • The Remains of the Day—Probably not as good a book as the movie was a movie.
  • Notes from the Underground—For all the hype, I didn’t get much out of this. I probably need to read it again.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • A Journal of the Plague Year—Very interesting and engaging. Defoe paints a vivid picture. (It was hard to believe he hadn’t actually witnessed the events.)
  • The Jungle Book—I enjoyed this a lot.  “I will remember what I was” is one of the great lines in English literature, in my opinion.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel—Lots of swashbuckling fun, but…
  • I Will Repay— …why would you write a sequel without the main character from the original. I expected to read the series but six years later this book was disappointing enough that I haven’t read the third.
  • Biko—Biko the man was admirable. Biko the book was somewhat less so. It was too journalistic and conspiratorial for me (especially at the end). For me, the melodrama detracted from the seriousness of the events.
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